Mary Josweg is a 21st century Catholic, but she sounds an awful lot like the 16th century Protestant reformer Martin Luther.

“The church needs to get cleansed,” said Josweg, 69, a parishioner at St. Patrick’s in Carlsbad. “I believe in Jesus as the son of God and Creator of the world — I happen to be Catholic. But the organization that I belong to is totally corrupt.”

Josweg was among the thousands of Catholics who attended eight “listening sessions” convened by San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy in October and November. He got an earful.

“People are no longer following blindly,” said Harley Noel, 85, a parishioner at St. John’s in Encinitas.

Across the nation, Catholics have questioned and criticized church leaders, frustrated by months of distressing headlines. More damaging revelations may be coming. San Diego’s Irwin Zalkin and other lawyers are urging California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to investigate California dioceses, following the lead of civil authorities in Pennsylvania, New York, Florida and other states.

When McElroy launched his listening tour in October, many in attendance were skeptical and angry.

“I thought it was horrific,” Josweg said of McElroy’s Oct. 17 “listening session” at Church of the Nativity in Rancho Santa Fe. “I was outraged that people were not screaming at him. It is such a cover-up. They never talk about the cover-up, all they talk about is it has gotten better, that the police are now called whenever a child is molested.”

The crisis has exposed divisions in the pews. Some argue that the scandals reveal a “lavender mafia” of powerful gay clerics. Others insist it illustrates the need for married and female priests. There are those who say the liberalizing changes wrought by Vatican II and Pope Francis have undermined the church’s timeless teachings.

Sexual morality

At the Church of the Nativity, men and women sat at 40 or so tables. After the bishop’s contrite remarks — “this was a horrific abandonment of the responsibility the church had for the safety of children” — a spokesperson at each table rose to ask a question.

How do we get younger people back to church?

The bishop admitted this is a difficult task: “Young people see the hypocrisy…”

Are there clear moral teachings in the seminaries?

Yes, McElroy insisted, plus extensive screening of candidates. “Most important is their relationship with God,” the bishop said. Another essential quality, he added, is “the ability to live out a life of celibacy.”

The mention of celibacy seemed to open the floodgates. The next questions all focused on the sex lives of church employees, whether clerical or lay.

Would engaging in homosexual acts with another consenting adult end a priest’s career?

“It could. It’s a serious violation of his vow of celibacy,” McElroy said. “But I am not prepared to say that any single action” between consenting adults would mean automatic dismissal.

Should the church employ people “living unchaste lives?”

Why do so many preachers “seem to be accepting sin, instead of rejecting sin?”

McElroy listed the church’s “three essential teachings” on sexual morality.

First, “we are called to live all the virtues of Jesus Christ — all the virtues. Chastity is one of them. But chastity is not the central virtue of Christian life. The central virtue is to love the Lord God with your whole heart and to love your neighbor as yourself.”

Second, “in Catholic moral teaching, any sexual activity outside marriage between one man and one woman is considered sinful.”

Third, while violence and hatred against LGBT people “exists in a dark corner of the church, it is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Octopus tentacles

Within the church, some authorities insist the clergy abuse scandal can be traced to a single source: homosexuality.

“The deeper problem,” wrote Janet Smith, a professor of moral theology at Detroit’s Sacred Heart Major Seminary, “lies in homosexual networks within the clergy which must be eradicated.”

These cabals, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò wrote in a letter critical of Pope Francis, “act under the concealment of secrecy and lies with the power of octopus tentacles, and strangle innocent victims and priestly vocations, and are strangling the entire Church.”

A new group, Concerned Catholics of San Diego, makes a similar argument.

“There are a lot of Catholics who are concerned about a homosexual agenda in the church,” said Daniel Piedra, 33, a Concerned Catholics leader. “The group advocates that people who have deep-seated homosexual desires or tendencies should not be allowed to be priests.”

Piedra wants “answers to specific questions, about specific incidences of possible misconduct in the diocese. The bishop has been quick to defend all of his priests but we hear of ongoing incidents in the seminary.”

The listening sessions ended Nov. 5. The diocese is preparing a report, a spokesperson said, complete with recommendations.

Full story at The San Diego Union-Tribune.